I love comic books, but my attention span is a bit longer than it was when I was ten. So I really appreciate the modern trend of collecting comics into multi-issue trade paperbacks. But what really gets me excited is a high-quality doorstopper like The Walking Dead: Compendium Three, which collects 48 issues (numbers 97-144, originally dating from May 2012 to July 2015). If you’re a fan of the AMC series and curious about the comics created by Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore, the Compendium series is a great way to get caught up in a hurry.
In this storyline, Rick Grimes and company have survived the worst that the zombie apocalypse—and their fellow survivors—can throw at them. The group is taking leadership of the Alexandria Safe-Zone and coming into conflict with Negan. This somewhat aligns with the storyline running in the current season (Negan, played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan, is scheduled to make his debut in the season finale). But the series departs from the comics in many significant ways. Characters alive in one medium have been long dead in the other. Daryl doesn’t even exist in the comics—but don’t let that stop you from reading them.
Whether on the page or the screen, this story resonates not because of the horror of zombies overrunning the world, but the drama of how the survivors respond. A recurring theme is the struggle to maintain humanity in the face of such horror. The key question of the The Walking Dead is, “How can we live amongst monsters without becoming monsters ourselves?” For the Governor or the Hunters (the Terminus group in the show), the answer is, “We can’t.” Rick is fighting to come up with a better answer, although he too struggles at times.
There is an interesting parallel between the group’s efforts to survive in the world of zombies and the real-life development of human civilizations. The group began as a small band of hunter-gatherers scavenging food and other necessities from the ruins of civilization while avoiding the predations of the walking dead. They then settle down and engage in small-scale agriculture at Herschel’s farm. When they take over the prison, the group has established a small city-state, one that quickly comes into conflict with another city-state, Woodbury, led by the Governor. As in real life, the establishment of city-states means that conflict between groups escalates from minor tribal skirmishes to all-out war.
By Compendium Three, the city-state system has evolved to the level of interdependence; that is, fortified and independent communities like Alexandria begin to trade with others. Negan and the Saviors have ideas for an even more advanced society: empire. They demand tribute in exchange for security. This is the classic bargain offered by kings—and gangsters. And Negan is not one to take no for an answer. If Rick is going to lead his people to victory, he’ll need as much political savvy as firepower.
An interesting element of the conflict is the way that zombies factor in. When the Governor used zombies in his attack the prison, it was a mark of his ruthlessness. Indeed, using the zombies against his human enemies smacked of a war crime. But in the war against Negan, both sides use zombies as weapons without a second thought. For all of their danger, zombies are predictable and can be managed by those strong and smart enough to have survived this long. The same cannot be said about the other survivors.
My one complaint about this collection is the lack of bonus material. At $59.99, Compendium Three is not cheap. Granted, 48 issues in one volume is plenty of content. But if Image Comics wants regular readers of the comics to shell out for these collected editions, some extras wouldn’t hurt. A quick glance at my bookshelf shows Hellboy Library Editions (2008-13) and The Absolute Sandman collection (2006-11) both include about 50 pages per volume of supplemental material, including introductions, artist sketches and notes by the writer.
Because this is The Walking Dead, a much-beloved character dies. And every time things start to look up for our heroes, the situation quickly gets worse than they had imagined. The more capable the group becomes, the greater the scope of dangers they face. Kirkman excels at upping the stakes and the tension. In fact, Compendium Three ends on a cliffhanger so intense, I can’t possibly wait for Compendium Four to find out what happens next. It seems I’ll be picking up the monthly issues after all.